I’ve always embraced my American identity. At 8 years old, I came home from school crying. I had found out that I could never be president of the United States. Because not only am I an American, I am also an Iranian.
Now, as a fully grown woman, I still sometimes come home crying. My people are under attack, and I had to sue the president. Because not only am I an American, I am also an Iranian.
And I understand what it’s like to lose my home, country and sense of belonging.
I was only 2 when my family came to the United States. We fled revolution-torn Iran in search of a new beginning. America gave us that opportunity, and so many more. It became home. After the Trump administration’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim nations was issued, I called my older sister crying, “They want to ban us. All of us.”
My sister remembers how unwelcome she felt when she first got here, years before I was even born. “Mana,” she replied. “They used to chase us with bats.” She knew an era of bigotry against our community that passed before I arrived.
Despite my large, extended family, I grew up with only my parents and siblings. My grandparents, aunts and uncles were denied entry into the United States. I had to reconcile my identity as an Iranian and an American (and simply being a child and teenager) with a limited support network.
These experiences are why I helped to build an organization called Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB) and dedicated my career to empowering young Iranian Americans. They find strength in defining their identity and culture for themselves through summer camps and leadership programs, bringing together their families and building community in return. These youths are remarkable: They are curious, they are bold, and they have bright futures ahead of them. They represent the best of what it means to be Iranian and American.
But the ban has wreaked havoc on their lives. Now they, too, are chased with bats — words wielded as weapons.
It is a horrifying realization to see, almost 40 years later, this fate as the horizon for a new generation. A reversion back to a prior time — with a hyphen, a barrier between Iranian and American. One IAAB member (or IAABers, as we call them), sociologist Neda Maghbouleh fears that we may even be among the last of our kind.
So our organization sued over President Trump’s travel ban in October. It was the first challenge to the administration’s third revision of its ban. And we won. The ban was halted Oct. 18, 2017, but the government appealed. In December, the Supreme Court temporarily reinstated the ban. We won again in the 4th Circuit in February, and I filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case to ensure the voices of Iranian Americans are heard.
We’re suing because we are American, and because we are Iranian. We are standing up for young people and all who remain voiceless in the hope that we will be given the right to simply exist and share our lives with our loved ones.
In the past year, IAABers have been harassed, bullied and discriminated against in almost every facet of their lives. Their families are being torn apart, and the physical borders of their culture and community are being forcibly closed. The outlet to their identity is being cut out from underneath them.
IAAB is only one plaintiff in this case; the others are all anonymous. They are rightly concerned that if they speak up and raise their voices, they will be retaliated against by their own government. But their stories need desperately to be shared. They represent the many voices unheard and stories untold.
One is a woman from Maryland who met her fiance while traveling in Iran. His visa application was received last year on Valentine’s Day, but now there are serious concerns that he will be banned from entering the United States. Others have stories that are just as sad: Marriages and relationships are being compromised; grandparents are left to fend for themselves. These are the stories we thought we had left behind.
The administration has overstepped a boundary in issuing its hateful ban. It has decided to unjustly punish thousands of young people and their families under the guise of national security instead of embracing the freedoms that have allowed America to flourish.
When I was young, I wanted to be the president, not sue the president. But what kind of role model would I be for kids like I was if I sat by while our community was being bullied by our own government? How can we be silent in the face of hatred and bigotry? What if there are no more Iranian Americans?
We cannot stand by and watch our community and youths be treated without compassion or dignity. We will represent our diasporic families because it is the right thing to do. We will not be silenced. We will not be invisible.